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Young Pitchers Rise To The Challenge For UCLA

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UCLA righthander Zach Pettway (Courtesy of UCLA/Scott Chandler)

The lead up to the 2019 season was different for UCLA. For the first time in a long time, there was more attention paid to the Bruins’ offensive attack than its pitching staff coming into the spring.

Without the presence of a premier pitching prospect such as Trevor Bauer or Gerrit Cole, or even a veteran workhorse such as Jake Bird, who graduated last year, and with an offense led by Preseason All-American second baseman Chase Strumpf and highly regarded first baseman Michael Toglia and outfielder Jeremy Ydens, that will happen.

However, two things can be true. Comparatively speaking, maybe this isn’t a vintage UCLA pitching staff with all kinds of star power. But at the same time, there’s little reason to believe, at least so far, that this pitching staff can’t get the No. 3 Bruins (7-1) where they want to go.

In its series win at Georgia Tech last weekend, the UCLA starting rotation of righthanders Zach Pettway, Jack Ralston and Jesse Bergin combined to pitch 18 innings and allowed only five runs. That came one week after that trio didn’t allow an earned run in a three-game sweep of St. John’s.

That’s two series against two projected regional teams, and all that group has done is go out and give the Bruins a chance to win each time, which the team has done five of the six times one of the trio has taken the mound. And their performance has been a big reason why, through eight games, UCLA’s team ERA is 1.11.

What the starting rotation has accomplished so far is even more impressive when you consider that they’re not even technically operating at full strength.

Junior righthander Ryan Garcia was supposed to be the team’s Friday starter, and he might be in a matter of weeks, but he’s currently out with an injury. For now, that job goes to Pettway, and he’s shined, which goes beyond just pitching well week-to-week.

There’s more than meets the eye to being a team’s Friday starter. It’s not always as simple as sliding up the next guy in the rotation.

It’s a spot designated for the presumed best pitcher on the team, but there’s also added pressure that comes with knowing that you are going to be squaring off against the other team’s best as well, and that if your team is going to win, you are likely going to have to out-pitch the other team's No. 1 option.

On Opening Day, Pettway stood opposite Red Storm ace Sean Mooney, who has pitched for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, outlasted him, and led his team to a come-from-behind win. Last Friday in Atlanta, he did the same when matched up against the Yellow Jackets’ righthander Xzavion Curry, who is going on his third season as the ace of the Georgia Tech staff.

When you combine Pettway’s early performances this season with what he accomplished last year, when he went 8-4, 3.35 and earned Freshman All-American honors, he’s clearly proven his worth in the role.

Ralston has been perhaps the biggest surprise of the group. This is his fourth season in the program, but only the second season in which he’s played, as he redshirted as a freshman and didn’t play at all in 2017. Last season, he threw 36.1 innings with a 6.44 ERA, but he’s clearly proven he’s better and ready to take on a bigger role.

Then there’s the freshman, Bergin, who has been the best of the bunch. Moving from high school to college baseball can be a pretty steep jump to make, but he’s made it look easy. UCLA coach John Savage was excited about Bergin’s potential coming into the season, but it would have been difficult for even the most wide-eyed optimist to predict he’d be this effective this early on.

In two starts, he’s thrown 11.2 innings with a 0.00 ERA. He’s struck out 13, walked just three and allowed a miniscule .103 opponent average.

“He just has a presence about him, a confidence level that you don’t see in a lot of freshman,” Savage said. “He came from a very good program at Harvard-Westlake (High School), didn’t pitch his senior year. (He) had a meniscus (injury), so he hadn’t pitched competitively in quite a while.

“His stuff is improving, he’s throwing four pitches for strikes and he’s given us a chance on Sundays. And that’s all you can really ask out of a freshman.”

Savage and his staff will have a decision to make once Garcia is healthy and returns. Even if they bring him along slowly, he’s going to be a part of the rotation at some point, and that will push someone to the midweek or into a bullpen role. Of course, that’s a pretty good problem to have.

“I think any good team has a surplus of pitchers, or players, really,” Savage said. “Ralston is a guy that’s really stepped up in that Saturday role. He wasn’t expected to do that. Pettway really wasn’t expected to be our Friday guy, so those guys are giving us two good starts. It’s very early in the process, but those guys are competing and making pitches.”

With that trio consistently getting deep into games, the bullpen hasn’t been taxed all that much, but when they’ve been asked to get outs, they’ve come through. In 27.2 innings thrown by UCLA relievers so far this season, they’ve given up only four runs Before the sixth inning Tuesday, when Cal State Northridge scored three runs, the only run the bullpen had allowed was a walk-off, solo home run for Georgia Tech’s Kyle McCann off of righthander Kyle Mora on Friday.

However, outside of that one pitch, Mora has been basically untouchable. In nine innings of work spread across six appearances, he’s struck out 17, walked two and allowed only one other base hit.

“He’s been really good. He’s a weapon,” Savage said. “He’s another guy that’s a four-pitch mix guy out of the bullpen, and usually bullpen guys are two-pitch guys or sometimes one-pitch guys. Really, he’s one of those four-pitch relievers that you don’t see very often that really can throw any pitch at any time. He’s got high confidence right now and he’s pounding the glove pretty good, so it’s fun to watch him.”

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Beyond Mora, sophomore closer Holden Powell has tossed six scoreless innings with seven strikeouts and picked up two saves. Redshirt senior righthander Nate Hadley has pitched 5.2 innings with only one hit allowed. And as the icing on this particular cake, freshman righthander Nick Nastrini added to the starting pitching depth by starting his career with 9.2 scoreless innings with 14 strikeouts in midweek starts against Loyola Marymount and CSUN.

They also stand to get even deeper with the return of lefthanders Justin Hooper and Nick Scheidler from injury. Hooper, a high-end arm who was a prized recruit when he arrived on campus, has battled injuries for much of his career, but would be a nice complement to the established arms on a righthanded-heavy staff. Scheidler was a workhorse on the staff last season, leading the team in appearances with 37 as the top lefthander in the bullpen.

That’s what you call an embarrassment of riches.

As for that heralded offense, they’ve been plenty good. In fact, they’re showing signs of improved depth, as Ydens and Toglia in particular have stumbled a bit out of the gate, each hitting .241 coming out of the Georgia Tech series, and the lineup really hasn’t missed a beat.

Senior outfielder Jake Pries, serving primarily as a designated hitter, was the hottest-hitting Bruin in Atlanta, as he had two three-hit days, and is hitting .440/.548/.640. Ryan Kreidler has hit .241 and .222, respectively, in his first two seasons in the program and has been considered a defense-first prospect on the left side of the infield, but perhaps he’s breaking out with the bat. He’s hitting .400/.457/.633 thus far, and he capped off the series against the Yellow Jackets by crushing a solo homer in the ninth inning of the finale. Toolsy sophomore outfielder Garrett Mitchell has been an early catalyst as well, hitting .357/.438/.357 in the early going.

In other words, it’s not just Strumpf, Toglia, Ydens, and some other guys. They’re getting a little something from just about everyone and can get to opposing pitching in a number of ways.

“The same thing that’s going with our pitchers, really, is going on with our position players,” Savage said. “There are some guys that have really stepped up. Pries is a guy that’s really stepped up, and there’s a lot of fanfare and talk about Toglia and Strumpf and Kreidler and Ydens, and we have a lot of good players. There’s days when guys don’t get the job done and somebody is there to pick them up, and that’s what good teams do.”

So, sure, perhaps the offense was more of a certainty coming into the season, and they’ve lived up to that billing. But the lesson we’ve also relearned along the way is that you will never go broke betting on one of John Savage’s team finding guys who can get outs.

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